THE STORY – Abandoned on the mean city streets by his lowlife owner, Doug, a naive but lovable dog named Reggie falls in with a fast-talking, foul-mouthed Boston Terrier and his gang of strays. Determined to seek revenge, Reggie and his new canine pals embark on an epic adventure to get him home and make Doug pay for his dirty deed.
THE CAST – Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, Randall Park, Will Forte, Josh Gad, Harvey Guillén, Rob Riggle, Brett Gelman, Jamie Demetriou & Sofia Vergara
THE TEAM – Josh Greenbaum (Director) & Dan Perrault (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
In terms of comedic voices, “Strays” arrives in theaters with a decent pedigree (I can promise that won’t be the final canine pun in this review, and no, I’m not sorry). Director Josh Greenbaum is following up his hilarious feature debut “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” and writer Dan Perrault co-created the acclaimed mockumentary series “American Vandal.” So, it’s extra disappointing that their collaboration has resulted in a movie that trades in the wit and hilarity of their past work for cheap, crude humor and repetitive jokes so obvious that even the dumbest doggies could see them coming like a well-lobbed tennis ball. Woof!
“Strays” is the latest in a long line of talking animal movies. It follows Reggie (Will Ferrell), a sweet-hearted dog who mistakes the neglect and verbal abuse of his owner Doug (an appropriately nasty Will Forte), for love. When Doug leaves Reggie to fend for himself in the big city, the innocent canine quickly finds new friends in a trio of dogs, each looking for something to fill a hole that’s been dug into their lives. Together, the four embark on a journey to get back at Doug.
Let’s throw the movie a bone – there are laughs to be found here and there. The funniest moments come from jokes depicting how dogs see a human-run world. Sure, many of them cover well-worn territory – mailmen are villainous, fireworks are scary, mirrors contain antagonistic dogs – but they elicit chuckles nonetheless. Isla Fisher’s vocal performance as Maggie, a spunky Border Collie, does the best job underlining these jokes with her excellent comic delivery.
But most of the film’s comedy comes from even creakier observations about our canine companions. Inevitably, the film descends into scatological humor ad nauseum, culminating in a scene at a pound that pushes the gross-out factor far past where many audience members may be comfortable. Other realms of vulgarity explored are more than inelegant; the script is fascinated with discussing, spotlighting, and joking about genitalia – not just on dogs but all types of species. The film’s marketing is centered around its R-rating, so it’s not as if such risqué humor is unexpected or even necessarily unwelcome, but a bit of ingenuity would be appreciated. Even the occasional jokes that are funny are too often punctuated with an explanatory comment or additional punchline that blunts the comedy. It’s as if the film’s creators have zero trust in their audience to catch all the jokes being thrown at them.
The film’s story is stupefyingly simplistic. In fact, if not for the adult language and occasional sexual content, “Strays” is so straightforward and undemanding that it could’ve easily been aimed at young children. Even the few moments where the movie tries to inject a modicum of conflict are either quickly and effortlessly resolved or bizarre and contrived. A late-in-film subplot involving a lost little girl feels particularly perfunctory.
Fisher is the standout amongst the main quartet of pooches. Accompanying her as the central dog Reggie, a scruffy little Border Terrier, Ferrell provides a reliably chipper vocal performance. Randall Park plays Hunter, a gentle Great Dane encased inside a cone, and while he’s generally funny, his character can’t help but come across as one-note, which isn’t necessarily Park’s fault. Reggie’s first friend in the world of stray dogs is Bug, a foul-mouthed Boston Terrier voiced by Jamie Foxx. The Oscar-winner successfully sells Bug’s short-tempered mania, but, like so much of the film, there’s not much more to his character or performance besides what’s obvious and on the surface.
“Strays” clearly knows exactly what it is – a disposable piece of entertaining diversion. But besides the pawful of jokes that do work, its thin plot and stomach-churning humor make this the kind of film that’s a waste of both human and dog time.